Summer Hours [L'heure d'été]
Olivier Assayas, 2008
#3, 2009 Skandies

Aw yeah. Now this is the stuff. Summer Hours may not exactly have you on the edge of your seat dying to know what's going to happen next, but it's an impressively deep reflection on the attenuated nature of intergenerational continuity with an interesting narrative structure to boot. Which makes me wonder where the explosions will go in the American remake Tom Hanks is planning.

Speaking of Americans who enjoy blowing stuff up, George W. Bush has been making the rounds lately promoting his new book, Stuff My Research Assistant Found Decision Points. It is, the pundits say, part of Bush's ongoing attempt to burnish his legacy, a concept toward which he has demonstrated some ambivalence over the years. In 2003, when things were going well for him, he scoffed at the notion of waiting for history's verdict before declaring his presidency a success: "We'll all be dead," he told Bob Woodward. By 2008, with polls showing that he was almost universally considered an abysmal failure, Bush had changed his tune, giving a series of speeches in which he floated sixty years as an estimate of the amount of time people ought to wait before passing judgment. Still, even the prospect that public opinion might turn around in the fullness of time doesn't seem entirely satisfying to him: by that point, he recently lamented to Matt Lauer, "I'm gonna be dead."

I've read a fair number of articles speculating about the likelihood of humankind surviving to the year 2100, and to my (initial) surprise, the median guess seems to be somewhere around 30 percent — and this after the end of Cold War. Some of these articles have focused on ecological collapse, but it seems to me that the main threat is that the world's nuclear arsenals, though a small fraction of their former size, are still more than capable of wiping out every creature more advanced than an insect. And all it would take would be a single leader of a nuclear power following Bush's logic for a few more steps: I'm gonna be dead; when I am, then as far as I'm concerned the world is gone anyway; therefore, I might as well take everything else with me. Yet at least for the moment civilization is still here. And a big part of the reason for that is this notion of legacy, the feeling that we leave traces of ourselves in the world that persist long after we're gone. To what extent is this really true?, Summer Hours asks. What lives on after we die?

On the most mundane level, there's one's estate. The movie begins with a party for Hélène Berthier Marly's 75th birthday at her home in the French countryside, and even though Hélène seems to be in fine health, she's old enough to take her eldest son Frédéric aside to discuss the disposition of her worldly possessions: some furniture that has attracted the attention of museums; a pair of paintings by a famous 19th-century artist; the estate of her uncle, a fairly renowned artist in his own right, which she has preserved; and of course the home itself. However, she has two other children, and as noted, this film is set in France. What's interesting about that, as I learned from Yuri Slezkine, is that inheritance laws in Catholic Europe work against the accumulation and transmission of capital. In Germany and Scandinavia, he said, primogeniture was the rule, and so the entire estate would have passed to Frédéric. In Britain and the Netherlands, laws were founded on the concept of the absolute nuclear family and were therefore even more strongly geared toward the preservation of capital, as the owner of an estate could pass it on to whomever he liked — e.g., if the firstborn seemed likely to piss it away, the patriarch could select a younger, more sensible son to inherit everything. But in France, estates have historically been divided equally among all the children, and that's how it works in Summer Hours. The only way Frédéric can preserve his mother's material legacy is to buy out his sister and brother, who live overseas and want to sell. And since each sibling's share of the inheritance is worthless on its own — 1/3 of a house, 2/3 of a painting — and yet worth more than any of them can afford, keeping the estate intact isn't an option. Less than a year after her death, Hélène's physical presence on this earth has dissolved.

What about living on through one's work? Remaining connected to posterity by creating something that will continue to speak to people long after you're gone? The problem there, Summer Hours points out, is that posterity generally isn't listening. The fact that this movie is set in France, a country with an array of institutions dedicated to advancing and preserving the national culture, puts an even finer point on the argument. Consider Paul Berthier, the artist uncle of Hélène's whose estate she had so carefully preserved. He's an important enough figure that upon Hélène's death the Musée d'Orsay comes calling, and there's even talk that export permits will be denied in the interest of keeping French art in France. But actual interest in Berthier seems to be greater in the U.S. than in his home country. His retrospective kicks off in San Francisco and may not even make it to Paris, and Hélène's daughter Adrienne plans to auction off his sketchbooks where they'll attract more interest, in Manhattan. (And where they'll likely be sold page by page, another dissolution). But is that really what anyone would call "living on"? Is that communicating with posterity, having an out-of-context sketch of yours sell to someone on the other side of the world who probably just picked it up as an investment? Making a real connection with posterity is possible — there are plenty of John Lennon songs I went crazy for even though I heard them for the first time years after his death — but what we see in Summer Hours is the far more common case: doughy middle-aged men poking through the oeuvre for a bit and then consigning it to the storage room.

Meanwhile, what's happening on the receiving end? We get a glimpse when Frédéric shows his teenagers the valuable Corot paintings that he says they'll inherit and pass on to their own children: they're unimpressed. It's not that they don't appreciate art, but these works are from a distant era and mean nothing to them. Not only do they see no connection between themselves and 19th-century France, but in their Guess t-shirts and Levi's jeans, listening to rap and eating junk food, to what extent do they even identify with France in general? Or how about their younger cousins, the children of Hélène's youngest son Jérémie, who live in Shanghai, summer in Bali, go to schools where the instruction is in English, and do semesters abroad in California? Or take their aunt Adrienne, who is an artist herself. Did the work of Corot and his contemporaries inspire her? Not so much, it turns out — she feels so little connection with France and its traditions that she's long since decamped to New York, where she designs contemporary tableware inspired by Scandinavian pieces for department stores in Japan. She's engaged to a guy from Colorado and her kids will actually be the Americans their cousins imitate. And again, all of this takes on an extra edge given that part of the purpose of the French cultural infrastructure mentioned above is to ensure that each generation imprints on the legacy of France, free from foreign influence. Near the end of the film, we see what that amounts to: a guy talking on a cell phone as he passes a museum exhibit featuring Paul Berthier's desk.

But of course few people leave a substantial physical estate or a corpus of creative work behind them when they die. What almost everyone leaves behind, as we've been reminded in countless Very Special Episodes of shows from Sesame Street on up, are memories. As long as we're remembered we never truly die, right? Summer Hours's answer: not so much. Even the closest relationships tend to be pretty narrow windows onto one another's lives, especially when they cross generational lines. Hélène's children may have plenty of memories of her as a mother, but what about the countless other roles she played in her life? How much of her life story did she ever relate to them, from the little details of her day-to-day existence — the café she frequented when she was 25, the reason she switched brands of shampoo in 1978 — to her deepest darkest secrets? There's reason to believe she actually had a long-term incestuous affair with Paul Berthier, for instance. Adrienne and Jérémie think she obviously did, Frédéric says no way... but the real answers, the details of all those trysts if indeed there were any, died with Hélène. And see how the importance of that question fades with time. To Hélène herself, this was the defining relationship of her life; to her children, it's a key to understanding their upbringing, but nothing they obsess about; to her grandchildren, it might be a creepy piece of family lore someday, mentioned once and forgotten; her great-grandchildren will never hear about it; her great-great-grandchildren will never hear of her. And the same is true from the opposite angle. What does Hélène know of her children's lives? Frédéric is an economist. We see him vigorously defending his book on a radio show. The ideas contained therein are clearly a big part of his life's work... and meaningless to everyone else in the movie. His mother says the book is sitting by her bedside, but she hasn't read it. She doesn't even recall that Frédéric has a university position now. And that's just one example. The movie is crammed with them — little scenes that suggest just how much these characters' lives do not revolve entirely around their relationships with the other family members. Frédéric spends a sequence in the company of a woman named Amélie — assistant? mistress? — who is never seen again; Adrienne has a scene, in English, with her fiancé James, who's the central figure in her life but relegated to a passing mention in her chats with her brothers and sisters-in-law; we also see that she knows more than anyone other than Elizabeth would ever want to know about teacups. A cross-section of Jérémie's brain would show large areas devoted to Puma and Air China, entities to which his siblings have never given a moment's thought. To what extent can you say you're living in on people's memories when all of those reconstructions of you are missing core pieces of your identity?

This probably makes it sound as though Summer Hours has all sorts of narrative loose ends flying all over the place, a big sprawling thing that wishes it were a novel and lacks cinematic economy. But one of the things that most impressed me about the movie is that it's almost fractally dense; you can watch almost any five-second clip and there'll be something about the theme in there. I was clicking around to rewatch some scenes for this writeup and the very first thing I saw was one of the brothers' wives bringing in some leftovers and asking, "Lisa? What do I do with this?" and the other one replying, "Throw it away." A totally incidental moment, yet right on point. And then we might notice, as a background detail, that while everyone else is drinking wine, Adrienne has in hand a can of Diet Coke — an act that the cultural establishment mentioned above once considered tantamount to treason. It's hard to find a moment in the film that isn't about the lack of continuity from one generation to the next...

...except that there's one aspect of the theme that I haven't touched on. I remember that when I was an adolescent I once had an argument with my father — about what I don't remember, but it was something to do with advice that he was demanding that I follow. And he made what I still consider a fairly arresting point, to wit, that he'd racked up thirty more years of life experience than I had, and that in insisting that I do as he advised, he wasn't trying to cast himself as "older and wiser" but rather just wanted to give me a thirty-year head start on my own accrual of life experience. I countered with something to the effect of "that's not how life works," which is the side that Summer Hours comes down on. It'd be a very different world if each generation picked up where the last one left off; instead, it tends to echo the last, and the one before that, and the one before that. Today's birthday party is in exactly the same spot as the artists' conclave of half a century ago. A little girl picks fruit in exactly the same spot her grandmother did. And isn't that a sort of continuity? In a wonderful move, the film concludes by dropping the main characters and handing the stage over to Frédéric's kids, throwing one last rager at the house of the woman who, to them, is nothing but a set of fond but sketchy memories of an old lady who said that one day all this would be theirs and their children's, and was wrong. There they enact anew the same old patterns, conforming in their rebellion, a bunch of stoned teenagers swimming and dancing and groping each other above the forgotten bones of the stoned teenagers of the generations that came before them.

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